It is widely believed that promoting children and young people’s digital skills will protect them from the risks and challenges that they may encounter on the internet. While it is true that more robust digital skills are a key protective factor from harm, it does not simply mean that children who score higher on digital skills are less exposed to risky content or contact online. Rather, empirical evidence shows a positive association between digital skills and online risks. For example, drawing on the EU Kids Online 2010 survey data, Sonck and De Haan (2013) showed that children with a higher level of self-reported digital skills were more likely to encounter some online risks – namely, seeing sexual images on the internet and meeting online contacts in person. Such a finding may be particularly puzzling for policy makers, educators and parents. But the correlation between digital skills and online risks is hardly surprising, as we will see.
The relationship between digital skills and online risks can be explained by looking at the relationship between digital skills and online opportunities, on the one hand, and online opportunities and risks on the other. Research has shown that digital skills have a positive direct influence on online opportunities and also mediate between access factors (as time spent online) and online opportunities. Therefore, the relationship between digital media use and online opportunities is indirect, mediated by digital skills (Livingstone & Helsper, 2010). This is to say that simply using the internet more often will not necessarily lead to experiencing more opportunities which, in turn, are influenced by how digitally skilled children are. It is in this sense that digital skills encourage the take-up of more opportunities: those who use the internet more often and are higher in skills engage in a broader range of online activities than those who use the internet an equivalent amount of time but are lower in digital skills.
Moreover, another consistent finding across research examining the opportunities and risks of the internet for children is that online risks and opportunities are related and mingle in complex ways (see, among others, Livingstone & Helsper, 2010; Livingstone, Mascheroni & Staksrud, 2018). While such a relationship may sound counterintuitive, this is because many online activities children engage in are not entirely beneficial nor entirely risky, and not equally positive or negative for all children. Indeed, it is inevitable that the children who engage in a wider range of online activities are more likely to encounter not only problematic but also beneficial content or contact.
However, while we can conclude that an indirect association exists between digital skills and exposure to problematic online experiences, knowledge about the role of digital skills in protecting children from the harmful consequences of online risks is still scarce.
Digital skills and harm: research evidence and gaps
One of the most important conclusions of the EU Kids Online project has been that, although exposure to online opportunities goes hand in hand with exposure to online risks, the latter does not necessarily translate into actual harmful experiences (Livingstone, Mascheroni & Staksrud, 2018). Rather, we can hypothesise that digital skills, while being related with exposure to online risks, can actually moderate the effects of online risks, by reducing the harmful consequences for children’s wellbeing and, at the same time, reinforce children’s resilience and ability to deal with online problematic situations.
Existing research suggests a positive role of digital skills in protecting children from harm, rather than from encountering risks: children who report lower levels of digital skills are less likely to encounter risks on the internet but are more likely to experience harm when they see inappropriate content or run into risky contacts (Sonck & de Haan, 2013). Sonck and de Haan (2013) also found that self-reported skills, socio-demographic variables and internet experience could not fully explain differences in the incidence of harm across the EU Kids Online 2010 survey countries, suggesting that psychological factors or the context in which children use the internet (school context, peer influence, etc.) are more influential in shaping the relationship between online risks and harm. Pre-existing offline vulnerabilities are the strongest predictor of the harmful consequences of children’s internet use. This is important, as children who are vulnerable offline are more likely to be harmed by internet use, representing an important target to keep in mind for policies and interventions.
Further analysis on the EU Kids Online data showed that digital skills are associated with the way children deal and cope with online problematic situations. Less digital skills are correlated with more passive responses to dealing with online risks. By contrast, more skilled children are more likely to adopt pro-active responses, such as blocking unwanted contacts and deleting aggressive and harmful messages (Vandoninck, d’Haenens & Roe, 2013). The coping strategies enacted to counter online risks mediate between social inclusion factors and the overall vulnerability of children. More specifically, Vandoninck, d’Haenens and Roe conclude that “although girls and younger children experience more harm, they are more likely to talk to somebody about the problem. Lower-class children are not necessarily more vulnerable online, as they are more likely to respond proactively when confronted with disturbing sexual images” (2013, p. 72). Social and proactive responses, it is suggested, are more effective ways of dealing with online problematic situations and reduce harm. However, later analysis by the same authors distinguishes between behavioural avoidance (stopping to use the internet for a while) or indifference (hoping that the problem would go away), and demonstrate that the former does not denote a passive attitude. Rather, “deliberately deciding to (temporarily) avoid specific online content, platforms or services should be considered as an active coping strategy” through which more vulnerable children actively and effectively deal with cyberbullying and content risks (Vandoninck & d’Haenens, 2015, p. 232-233).
Therefore, digital skills are both related to exposure to online problematic situations and to the development of resilience and more effective coping strategies to deal with such experiences.
While the possibility of children encountering a risk online always exists, chances that this risky experience will translate in harmful outcomes depend not only on their pre-existing vulnerabilities, but also on how digitally skilled children are. Moreover, as it is the case offline, children’s active knowledge of and familiarity with the online environment can pave the way towards a more confident and skilled use of the internet, possibly enhancing online opportunities and the ability to face online risks so as not to be harmed.
More research, however, is needed to better understand the relationship between digital skills and children’s wellbeing: for example, to determine whether distinctive types of digital skills are equally crucial to minimise the likelihood of experiencing harm and moderate the effect of offline vulnerabilities; or, instead, whether distinct sets of digital skills lead to different paths to online resilience and wellbeing. Even more important it is to conduct longitudinal research in order to address not only the short-term but also the medium- and long-term influence of digital skills on children’s wellbeing, and to be able to simultaneously examine the feedback effects from wellbeing on ICT use related variables.
We presented some of the crucial factors to consider when planning, developing and reflecting on policies, interventions, and even daily informal educational practices aimed at promoting an active role of the child as a competent agent in the digital environment. ySKILLS aims to fill this important gap in the research.
This blog post is based on the work conducted within WP2 (task 2.2) by Giovanna Mascheroni, David Smahel, Davide Cino and Jakub Mikuška.
Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. (2010). Balancing opportunities and risks in teenagers’ use of the internet: The role of online skills and internet self-efficacy. New Media & Society, 12(2), 309-329.
Livingstone, S., Mascheroni, G., & Staksrud, E. (2018). European research on children’s internet use: Assessing the past and anticipating the future. New Media & Society, 20(3), 1103-1122.
Sonck, N., & de Haan, J. (2013). How the internet skills of European 11-to 16-year-olds mediate between online risk and harm. Journal of Children and Media, 7(1), 79-95.
Vandoninck, S., D’Haenens, L., & Roe, K. (2013). Online risks: Coping strategies of less resilient children and teenagers across Europe. Journal of Children and Media, 7(1), 60-78.
Vandoninck, S., & d’Haenens, L. (2015). Children’s online coping strategies: Rethinking coping typologies in a risk-specific approach. Journal of Adolescence, 45, 225-236.